Tag Archives: compassion

Can I be Positive?

All you need is by Ari Hahn
All you need is, a photo by Ari Hahn on Flickr.

People who live with mental illness, whether it is themselves or a loved one, love with too much stress and negative emotions. Much has been written about stress and certainly everybody has heard of the dangers of being over stressed.

Most medical professionals and psychotherapists work under the assumption that of you get rid of the negative in your life you will fill up your life with positive. People want to be happy and to flourish so if we remove the obstacles you will seek, find and fill your life with good healthy emotions and activities. Unfortunately, we see that it doesn’t work that way. It would if, for instance, love and fear were opposite ends of a real continuum. But if they were, you couldn’t both love and fear the same person at the same time. I sure you know of that possibility.

Science tells us that negative emotions help us focus on protection. If you are walking down a dark city street and a bunch of rowdy teenage boys come up behind you, you might get anxious or afraid. Your muscles tense, your heart beats harder, you listen more carefully, etc. Your only thought is how to stay safe.

If your kid is beginning to act out, your whole being focuses on what needs to be done to get through this episode. Hypervigilance reigns as you watch for signs that hospitalization might be needed. You ignore other tasks that seemed important just a short while ago. You feel all sorts of negative emotions and they actually can help you (in some ways) keep you and your family safe.

But what about positive emotions? How do they work? How do they effect our thinking and actions?

Positive emotions and positive interactions tend to move us in an opposite direction. When we engage in positivity our minds and hearts open up to new possibilities. Emotions like joy, gratitude, hope, pride and love help us feel expansive and we are able to be more creative. We build stronger relationships and live healthier lives. Not because of the lack of stress but because the positive emotions actually enhance these processes in our brains.

However, people do not automatically move into the positivity mode. If you have been overwhelmed with problems you might be stuck in a negativity rut. The real good news is that we all can train ourselves to cultivate feelings of joy, gratitude, awe, serenity, hope and love. If you can find even a few moments of these feelings then those moments are the seeds of a flourishing life. And there is research to show that for many people nurturing those seeds can be just as effective as antidepressants. With no side effects.

Some people need a personal coach. A positivity trainer. A professional who can teach you to refocus and cherish the good feelings through overwhelming times. I cannot think of a better investment.

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Filed under Coaching, Love, Positive Psychology, PTSD

A Start on the Path to Positivity

In my last post I proposed that people suffering from complex PTSD can improve their lives by increasing positivity. Although many people see this possibility, others feel so overwhelmed that they feel it impossible. While that is the nature of C-PTSD, I have worked with these people to overcome the obstacles and progress on the strive to thrive highway.

There are many tools and techniques that have been developed by positive psychologists in the past ten years. Although I have found them to parallel techniques that have been around for thousands of years, these new formulations are based on research and fit well into our modern perspectives. One powerful and simple exercise is the “Gratitude Journal.”

The Gratitude Journal is really a very simple exercise. You set aside ten minutes at the end of the day to write in a journal three things that occurred that day that engendered some level of gratitude. Then add on to that some reason for why it happened. The events can big big or small, significant or humble, it makes no difference. Anything from, “my daughter gave birth to a healthy child,” to “a lady was nice to me while in line at the supermarket.” When citing a reason, it needs to be anything that makes sense to you. If you do this for three weeks you will almost certainly see a positive change in your life.

Some people claim it is difficult to find things to be grateful for. Of course, that’s true. But not because there aren’t reasons to be grateful. It is because you are not practiced at thinking positive. And while there are really good reasons for that, it is the lack of practice that keeps your mood negative. The purpose of keeping a Gratitude Journal is to train your mind and heart to be more open to positivity. As you struggle to find events to be thankful for you are creating neural paths of positivity in your brain. The more of positivity paths up there, the better you feel.

I have done this myself and with dozens of other people. A few people need help to begin the habit of finding and expressing gratitude. With even slight help everybody can find positive points to be thankful for. And every person who I know that has completed even a few weeks of this journal has sung the benefits.

Some people ask: how long do I have to keep this journal? Remember that the goal is to train your mind in the positive direction. So the schedule would be similar to other training endeavors. At first it is important to work on it on a daily basis. But once you’ve gained the skill, only maintenance is needed. That means only two or three times a week. On the other hand, you will find that it will become an enjoyable activity.

Hey, a healthful activity that’s enjoyable. We can all use that!

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Filed under Coaching, Positive Psychology, PTSD

Anger Management is stupid. Better to Avoid Anger

Anger and Stress. Most of us suffer from these two maladies, especially if we are blessed with families that struggle with special challenges like mental illness of a member that is an ex-abused person. Last week I attended a family support group. One member shared a list of 100 ways of coping with stress and anger.  I looked over it and it was quite impressive. Many of the items we would think of without the list, and many were very clever. It included things like taking a bath, deep breathing, taking a walk, singing a song, dancing in the living room, etc. I’ve used some of those strategies, and some work really well for me. Bubble baths don’t help me at all, but dancing like a teenager (as long as nobody it there to laugh at me) works really well.

But when you get these suggestions you realize that they are all useful only after you are stressed out or angry. They can help you manage the stress or anger, but do little to help you prevent losing it in the first place. If your spouse had a hard day and complained about you for no good reason, you might just flip. If he or she was really bent out of shape and insulted you or worse, it is possible that the stress and anger can become unmanageable. After you are ready to strangle somebody it can you really turn on the music and just dance?

What we need is some antidote to reduce the stress and anger before it gets too much. Some way that we can feel that it really is not so bad to begin with.

Impossible, you say. I would think the same way. But my eldest daughter is in this matter almost opposite from me. She never seems stressed out. She takes everything easy. I have not seen her act angry since she was a teenager. If she were not my own daughter I would be terribly jealous. But instead I realize that I need to learn from her.

But I am not like her. So I researched and learned from others also. I found that there is actually ways to reduce the anger before it happens.  No guarantees. Not always. But ways to make a significant change in your life and the lives of the people around you.

First let’s understand what anger is. Anger occurs when somebody or something either harms us, threatens to harm us, or prevent us from getting something we need or want. When the car in front of us keeps cutting us off many of us get angry. On the other hand, if we’ve had a hard day and come home to the 7 year old’s shoes in the living room, and we trip on them, we can get angry. Why? Because we feel like that behavior almost hurt us. Or if we are a bit more sensitive, we feel like we are losing control of our seven year old, or of the way we want our home to be. No matter how you cut it, though, we feel somehow threatened by the other person, either physically or psychologically.

The next step (which happens all too fast) is that we think something negative about the person who is threatening us. “That no- good SOB, why does he always DO THAT” “Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to put away your shoes? Can’t you learn that simple thing?” These thoughts are what solidifies and crystallizes the emotion into real anger. It takes about 1/3 of a second to move from the feeling to the thought. If we can hijack this process in less than 1/3 of a second, we can avoid the anger.

In order to do that we need to identify an emotion that can replace the anger. What is the opposite of anger? It is not calmness. That is just the disappearance of anger. The one emotion that is absolutely incompatible with anger is compassion. If a person feels compassion for another then it is impossible to feel anger.

Compassion and anger are not really so different. When you are angry at somebody you focus on that person’s faults. “She is so stupid, I can’t stand her! If she comes here again I will tell her to leave.” With compassion we also focus on the person’s faults. “She is so stupid, I feel sorry for her. If she comes here again I will make sure she feels better.”

What about other situations? That ridiculous driver? “That guy really has a problem. I can’t get involved in his problems, so I’ll steer clear of him.” “Jimmy is just a seven year old.  He can’t remember to put his shoes away. I can’t hurt him by yelling at him, poor kid.”

Training yourself is conceptually easy, but it takes a lot of practice. You need to practice coming up with compassionate explanations for other people’s bad behavior on a regular basis. Keep a compassion journal. Set ten minutes every day to think of those stupid things that bothered you during the day and write down how you can feel sorry for the person who displayed the stupidity or bad behavior. It may not be easy at first, but it is the practice that will reap the rewards.

If you keep it up for about two weeks (or less) you will begin to try to think compassionately about people as soon as they do things that are hurtful. Soon after that you will find that you can begin to feel sorry for the other person within that 1/3 window and the anger that was harming yourself will not be there to manage.

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Filed under Coaching, emotional regulation, Positive Psychology